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Mayor’s Race: Can Anyone Catch Dixon?

P. Kenneth Burns

Baltimore will hold its mayoral primary in two months and former Mayor Sheila Dixon is perceived to be the front runner.

Two polls—one conducted back in November, the other in January—both showed Dixon with a comfortable lead, around 25 percent of the vote in a crowded field. Her closest competitor, state Senator Catherine Pugh, was about 10 points behind. 

Mileah Kromer, the Director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, says those results aren’t surprising. The former mayor has the highest profile of any of the candidates. And she does well among older, African American women, who are reliable voters.

Kromer says the other candidates need to zero in on Dixon’s base.

“If they can each chip away at the piece of her core voter base and the best candidate then can coalesce the rest,” she says.

Don Norris, the director of the School of Public Policy, at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, says Pugh is in the best position to be that candidate. Besides her second place spot in the polls, Pugh has deep pockets. In the last campaign finance statement filed in January, Pugh had more than $650,000 on hand. Norris believes Pugh will use some of that cash to go after Dixon.

“What I expect to see in the next two months are ads from Pugh’s campaign and possibly other campaigns that will attack Dixon for her ethical lapses and having been convicted of stealing,” Norris says.

Dixon was convicted of embezzlement in December 2010 and resigned in February 2011 as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. Norris believes Dixon’s support of roughly 25 percent in the polls is her ceiling. She likely will not pick up much more support.

Pugh launched her second television commercial Thursday with what her campaign called a “significant buy” on Baltimore broadcast and cable stations.

There are 13 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. Seven of them have enough money to run very visible campaigns. One is attorney Elizabeth Embry. Unlike Dixon and Pugh, Embry is not well known and was polling only in the single digits. But Embry says what’s changed since those polls is she is running television ads.

She calls that “an important step” because she has to “introduce myself to every voter in the city and tell my story and what I want to do for the city.”

Businessman David Warnock, like Embry, also is not well known. And he, too, has the money to run TV ads.

But Professor Norris says both Embry and Warnock are going to have a hard time breaking through because both are white in a city that is nearly two-thirds African American.

“This is not 1999 when Martin O’Malley ran against a couple of candidates,” Norris says. “Martin O’Malley being white, the other candidates being black, whose campaigns imploded because of their behavior.”

Norris describes 1999 as a perfect storm for O’Malley, and says no such storm is on the horizon for Warnock or Embry.

City Councilmen Carl Stokes and Nick Mosby also are vying for the Democratic nomination. And there is another factor new to the mayor’s race since those early polls: the candidacy of Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson.

He got into the race minutes before the filing deadline, 9 p.m. February, so there is no polling available to gauge his popularity. McKesson is getting a lot of national media attention and is raising a significant amount of money on line, at last check about $140,000.

But Mileah Kromer at Goucher says McKesson’s late entry means he’s late to the game of local, retail politics. “Some of these other candidates like Embry, like Nick Mosby, have been knocking on doors since the summer,” Kromer says. “So they have a built-in base of support that perhaps he doesn’t have.”

There also are five Republicans running, as well as one Libertarian, three Greens, two Independents and five unaffiliated candidates. But because the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, the winner of that party’s primary is expected to win the general election in November.

The two polls on the Mayor’s race were conducted by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies in January and the Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore in November. Links to each are below.